Two Sisters of Providence took more than their luggage with them when they boarded a plane at the airport in Great Falls, Mont., in the crisp early evening of Monday, February 2. Sisters Maryann Benoit and Ann Dolores Ybarrola, with 152 years of religious life between them, were the last Sisters of Providence to serve the needs of God’s people in Montana. They carried the faith, hopes, dreams, accomplishments and legacy of countless Sisters of Providence who have served in ministry in the state since 1864.
The first Sisters of Providence in Montana – Sisters Mary, Mary Edward, Remi and Paul Miki – arrived as missionaries. All were under 21 except for Sister Mary, who was 34. They traveled by boat from Fort Vancouver up the Columbia River to Fort Walla Walla, where there were joined by three Jesuit priests.
The travelers came east across the Rocky Mountains, making their way on horseback for 400 of the last 700 miles. Escorted by Chief Saltese, they arrived on October 17, 1864, at St. Ignatius Mission, where they met the Indians they had come to serve.
Called “Lady Blackrobes” by the Indians, they were the first Catholic sisters to arrive in Montana. “You are the first white women who ever crossed the high Rocky Mountains,” the chief of the Flathead Indians is said to have to told them. The Indians admire your bravery.
The sisters’ initial focus was to introduce a “civilized way of life,” beginning with lessons on Christian values taught to Indian children in schools for girls, some of them boarders. Boys were taught by the Jesuits. The schools were funded partially by the sisters begging in mining camps and by mission funds and personnel supplied by the Catholic Church. The first government financial assistance of $2,100 arrived in 1874, grew to $4,000 a year in 1878-1890, and then evaporated.
Those early educational efforts later spread to other western states. Wherever the sisters had settled since the arrival of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, foundress of the Sisters of Providence in the West in Fort Vancouver in 1856, they opened hospitals and/or schools, began social services and were asked to teach religion to the settlers’ children. Following that tradition, the sisters in Montana pioneered early hospitals in Missoula (1873), Fort Benton (1886) and Great Falls (1892).
There is much more to this history than can be recounted here, but one has only to look at some of the major institutions in Great Falls and Missoula to realize what an impact the sisters made.
- Central Catholic High School
- College (now University) of Great Falls
- Columbus Hospital
- St. Gerard School
- St. Peter and St. Paul Parish & School
- St. Thomas Home (now St. Thomas Child & Family Center)
- Sacred Heart Academy
- St. Anthony School
- St. Patrick Hospital
- St. Patrick School of Nursing
- St. Francis Xavier School
The roll call of pioneering sisters who established the foundations there is impressive, as is the list of still living sisters who carried on their works in the former St. Ignatius Province.
Ask the old-timers about Sisters:
- Loretta Marie Marceau, the financial whiz who made an art of wise stewardship and encouragement of donations to support the ministries;
- Mary Trinitas Morin, a gifted artist and educator whose works shine on the University of Great Falls campus;
- Rita Mudd, who made her mark as president of the College of Great Falls and who was a beloved teacher at St. Thomas Home in Great Falls and at Loyola Sacred Heart High School, St. Francis Xavier School and Sacred Heart Academy in Missoula;
- Kathryn “Kitsy” Rutan, who served at St. Thomas Home, St. Peter & St. Paul School and the College of Great Falls and who later became general superior of the international congregation in Montreal;
- Peter Claver Thomas, who ministered at Columbus Hospital and then was a legendary administrator at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane;
- Mary Kaye Nealen, former professor and provost of the University of Great Falls, now serving as a general councilor in Montreal;
- and Providencia Tolan, who embraced and was embraced by the Indian people and served at St. Thomas Home and the College of Great Falls.
That is just a hint of the footsteps Sisters Maryann Benoit, Ann Dolores Ybarrola and others have followed in as they have been providence to the people of Montana.
Sister Maryann traces her introduction to Montana to her days as a student at the College of Great Falls (CGF), where she earned a BA degree in education and English in 1953. After teaching elementary and secondary school, she returned to Montana as a professor in the English department of her alma mater, where she served for 19 years. She was invited to teach in Japan and was an advisor to Japanese students at CGF. In 2000, the University of Great Falls Alumni Association presented her with the Alumni Recognition Award for outstanding leadership, professional achievement and scholarly work.
Sister Ann Dolores is a Montana native, born in Havre, and lived in the state for much of her life. She was educated at St. Thomas School in Great Falls, where her father arranged for his children to be cared for after the death of their mother at 35. She spent classes in summer sessions at CGF to earn a degree like so many other Sisters of Providence, and then became an elementary school teacher. She delighted in the fact that the classroom she and other first- and second-grade boarders were taught in at St. Thomas Home in 1944-45 was the very same one she was assigned to teach first graders in nine years later.
She later was a high school teacher, principal and office manager at Sacred Heart Academy in Missoula and Central Catholic High School in Great Falls. She served in ministry at the College (University) of Great Falls for 19 years, in institutional research, the registrar’s office and financial aid. Upon her retirement, she was presented at the 1992 commencement with the Emilie Gamelin Award “for dedicated service to the College of Great Falls in the spirit and example of Mother Emilie Gamelin.”
After their retirement, the two housemates threw open their hearts and home to people who needed but could not afford assistance with writing applications and essays, editing and occasional translating. Sister Maryann also mentored writers and teachers, including some of her former students. Sisters Maryann and Ann Dolores stayed in Montana for as long as they could, until the demands of age and infirmity led them to accompany Provincial Leader Judith Desmarais to their new home at St. Joseph’s Residence in Seattle. Their days are spent with the sisters there, but no doubt Montana figures prominently in their dreams.